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What Is a Roadmap? The Ultimate Guide for Roadmapping in 2021

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What is a roadmap? The ultimate guide for roadmapping in 2021
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Roadmapping 31 Oct 15 mins read Malte Scholz

What is a roadmap? The ultimate guide for roadmapping in 2021

Do you remember the first time you went to IKEA?

You probably went for a reason, to solve a problem in your life.

For us, it was clothes. Years of buying clothes had finally caught up with us, and our wardrobe was overflowing.

The plan was simple. Drive across to IKEA, buy a wardrobe with plenty of storage, assemble it and achieve clothing tranquility.

Yet, it wasn't that simple.

We started by navigating the IKEA showroom, which is designed like a maze to force you to view all the items available.

Suddenly, purchasing plates, lamps and rugs seemed urgent too. Next, the wardrobe we wanted was out of stock, forcing us to pick an alternative.

Exhausted, we collapsed in the cafe and ate a Swedish hot dog.

After a long drive home, I began building the wardrobe.

We picked this wardrobe because it had a top shelf, giving us even more storage.

Yet, when it came time to fit it, I realized the mounting holes for the shelf were on the outside of the wardrobe.

I knew the end goal and jumped into building the wardrobe, which, to this day, still does not have a top shelf.

I made a bad decision because I haven't considered all the inputs available to me.

If I'd looked carefully at the instructions and parts, I would have noticed the small holes in the side of the wardrobe and understood what their purpose was.

If only I'd used a roadmap...

With a strategic overview provided by a great product roadmap, I could have noticed my mistake or avoided the problem entirely by donating some clothes to Goodwill.

What is a roadmap?

A roadmap is a strategic document that shows the major steps required to achieve a goal.

It can be shared with colleagues and team members to help them understand the thinking behind the goal and the individual steps required to get there.

The roadmap is created as a result of a road mapping process, which in our experience, can be simplified to just 2 elements - decisions and inputs.

What is Strategic roadmapping

The purpose of strategic roadmapping is — quite simple — to make decisions. 

In a roadmap, this means making decisions about how we'll get to the final goal and in what order we'll complete those steps.

To make good decisions, we must consider what inputs influence those decisions. These inputs are practically unlimited and include things like:

  • The strengths and skills of the team working on the goal

  • Funding available to complete the goal

  • The culture of the organization — is there a way in which you typically work?

  • How long you have to complete the goal?

  • Is there a strategy or vision that sits above this roadmap?

Once we've made decisions using a prioritization tool, these become the key parts of a roadmap.

What isn't a roadmap?

A roadmap is not concerned with the day-to-day steps required to achieve the goal, instead of focusing on the major steps or initiatives required along the way. If you need to document day-to-day steps, consider writing a backlog instead.

Think of the steps on a roadmap as landmarks on your journey, whereas a backlog is the turn-by-turn directions from your GPS.

A roadmap is also not the place to track progress, assign work, or schedule meetings. Keep the roadmap focused on major steps and those big decisions we discussed earlier.

Why are roadmaps so important?

Roadmaps prevent situations like our IKEA story by setting a long-term plan based upon strategic thinking.

1. Roadmaps give meaning to work

A roadmap should be a visible document that everyone in your team can review and agree on. This enables everyone to understand how their day-to-day work helps to achieve the overall goal, helping keep people on track and motivated.

2. Roadmaps get you to the goal quicker

With a shared understanding of your team’s final goal, those working on the steps of your roadmap will be able to determine the quickest method to get there.

With a roadmap, you can change and update the document as you go, so long as you communicate with your stakeholders and explain why.

3. Roadmaps highlight priorities

In a modern workplace, there are always requests and opinions on how things should be done. With a roadmap, you can implement effective prioritization techniques to make better, more objective decisions. This empowers you to reject requests from stakeholders if they do not help to achieve the final goal and justify increased resources for the essential steps on your roadmap.

4. Roadmaps mean fewer meetings

A roadmap helps everyone in your organization understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, and when you are doing it. This visibility reduces the need for meetings, saving you time and resources.

Types of roadmaps

When most people think of roadmaps, they think of the product roadmap used by companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook to develop software.

They are popular with development teams because they enable quick communication of what needs to be done, what resources are required, and what important deadlines are approaching.

Yet, these benefits don't just apply to the software.

They apply to all teams, including sales, marketing, HR, and operations, with just a few small adaptations to suit their processes.

Product roadmaps

A product roadmap is a document that describes how a product is likely to develop, convinces stakeholders, and helps to acquire resources for developing the product.

Product roadmaps are the most variable type of roadmap in this guide due to a methodological divide in the way software products are developed.

Product teams work in either a waterfall process or an agile process:

  • Waterfall teams complete work in a sequence, typically following strictly defined documentation which includes a structured roadmap with deadlines and phases.

  • In an agile process, teams are self-organized and work towards a long-term goal with an incremental process. Through constant communication between customers, developers, and management, teams modify their plans to best achieve the end goal.

For waterfall teams, Gantt chart-style roadmaps are essential. But for an agile team, they can seem counterintuitive — why plan for the distant future when we value agility and things change constantly?

Agile teams and roadmaps

With the right structure, roadmaps are a valuable tool for agile teams because:

  • Roadmaps in agile are not set in stone; instead, they reflect the current state of the project. You can change and update them based upon changes — usually done in sprints.

  • Roadmaps give transparency and help align the product team and stakeholders towards the final goal.

  • They enable long-term planning when working with less agile departments, such as HR and finance. This enables you to access funding and resources based upon your best guess of what will happen next — your agile roadmap.

To adapt a roadmap for agile, consider the following tips:

  • Stress to stakeholders that the roadmap will change and that flexibility is an essential part of the agile process. If you can't convince stakeholders, make sure to involve them in the prioritization process

  • Omit dates from your roadmap if possible, or replace them with more lenient milestones. You could also organize your roadmap differently, by departments, owners, or sprints.

How to build a product roadmap

  1. Know what you are building and why you are building it

  2. Speak to the key stakeholders in your organization and understand their concerns and needs. Invite them into your prioritization discussions where you can. 

  3. Set high-level steps to complete the product. Do not include features or technical requirements — these are better suited to a backlog (in agile) or a product requirements document (in waterfall)

  4. Present and share the roadmap and modify if necessary

Product roadmap template

Your roadmap will look different depending on your team size and goals. 

  • Small teams might prefer a Kanban or board view of the project

  • Large teams will use a timeline with tasks being ordered by initiatives.

We've created a set of helpful templates to help you get started with prioritizing and planning your product here.

For product portfolio managers (i.e., product managers running multiple products at once), you'll need a bird's eye portfolio view. We've created a template just for you here, which lets you add and manage multiple products from one roadmap.

Business roadmaps

Traditionally, businesses communicated their strategic thinking in long business plans, often longer and more lacking in excitement than a phone directory.

However, there is a better way. Business roadmaps are short and efficient, allowing them to be easily reviewed by stakeholders in a few minutes.

This is because a business roadmap is a high-level document focused on the key steps required to achieve the business's key objectives and goals.

It can be consulted continually to ensure the business is on track and that no key deadlines have been missed.

How to build a business roadmap

  1. Start by understanding your final goal and why you are doing it

  2. Research the major steps required to achieve that goal and what challenges you'll face in completing each of those steps.

  3. Define each step as a major theme that can be strategically justified.

  4. Place these steps in order and consider the resources required (such as people and time) to complete them. Make sure you can defend why the steps should be completed in this order.

  5. Critique your roadmap — is this realistic? If conditions change, can your roadmap adapt?

Business roadmap template

How a business roadmap looks depends upon the size and ambition of your business.

  • For a new business, a roadmap is a visual summary of what needs to be done next and, due to limited capacity, likely in sequence. An item view is perfect for this.

  • For a growing business, it helps prioritize tasks with limited resources available and helps team members multitask to better achieve organizational goals. Try a board view or Kanban chart for this.

  • For a global mega-corporation with HR, marketing, sales, and product to manage, a business roadmap must represent all these departments moving simultaneously, without hindering each other. A timeline of work is essential here.

We've created a template to help you get started with prioritizing and planning your business here.

Technology roadmaps

The amount of technology required to run a modern business is overwhelming and constantly changing.

Technology roadmaps are used to plan the complicated process of implementing new tools in the workplace and who will be responsible for ensuring the success of the project. It can also include things like change management, upgrades to tools, or rolling out changes to a whole organization.

An example of a project needing a technology roadmap would be switching software systems. Data will need to be migrated and employees trained without impacting customer service or revenue. A technology roadmap breaks this up into steps to be completed over time and keeps everyone on track.

Unlike other roadmaps, a technology roadmap is typically lower-level and more concerned with details than strategic steps.

How to build a technology roadmap

At companies like Siemens, Philips, and Motorola, technology roadmapping has been turned into a 3-part process.

The first part is understanding the inputs required, known as a "preliminary phase." In this stage, the product or project manager must figure out:

  1. What does technology need to achieve to be a success? Marketing needs feature X, whereas HR needs feature Y, but it needs to be delivered for under $150,000.

  2. How will we resource the project, and who in leadership will help us to achieve our project goals? Without support from leadership, technology roadmaps can fail.

  3. Define a scope or boundary for the project. This is calculated by looking at the end goal (or vision) and the resources available.

Next, the roadmap starts to come together in the "development phase":

  1. Know what will be built at the end of the roadmap

  2. Identify the major steps required to get there and what technology is required to reach each step.

  3. Determine if any new technology has specific requirements and how those requirements will be met.

  4. Research the costs and timescales of each major step

Finally, a technology roadmap needs the support of stakeholders and the team responsible for implementing the project. If there is further work required or technology changes, the roadmap should be revisited and updated.

Technology roadmap template

How a technology roadmap looks depends upon the size of your organization and the scale of the end goal.

  • For multi-department or multi-national teams, you'll need a roadmap with multiple lanes to enable simultaneous work to be completed. Consider using a Gantt style chart for this, which represents work on a timeline.

  • For a smaller project, a Kanban approach on a board can be useful, with tasks represented on individual cards. This allows team members to easily see their priorities and the status of their work.

We've created a template to help you get started with prioritizing and planning your technology projects here.

Marketing roadmaps

Similar to business roadmaps, marketing teams used to write lengthy strategy documents that were out-of-date the moment they were published and difficult for other departments to understand.

Marketing roadmaps show what the marketing team is working on at a glance. This must be easy to understand, as marketing teams are often project-led with several deliverables and projects being worked on at once.

For example, think about running the marketing team at Apple. When the iPhone is announced, simultaneous projects must launch, including digital, social media, and TV advertising. Having a roadmap enables the team to see the big picture and plan the resources required to ensure a successful launch.

How to build a marketing roadmap

  1. Define your end goals. For example, a measurable increase in revenue, market share, or customer satisfaction.

  2. Create big steps. Set high-level projects required to achieve your goals, such as creating a new web page, completing content marketing projects, or launching a new digital marketing campaign.

  3. Assign big steps. Decide who will complete each of the big steps or initiatives. This could be entire departments or individuals.

  4. Set timescales. Define timescales for each of the initiatives, either against dates, milestones, or product launches. For larger teams, these initiatives will need to run simultaneously.

Marketing roadmap template

How your marketing roadmap looks will depend upon your team and your preferences:

  • For smaller teams, an item view will help you prioritize and assign tasks

  • For larger teams, use a timeline view to show how tasks can be completed simultaneously and keep track of progress.

We've created a helpful template to help you get started with prioritizing and planning your marketing here.

How to prioritize using a roadmap

There are a million different ways to prioritize a roadmap, but the most quantitative and time-efficient way is by using a "prioritization matrix" or "weighted scoring model." This is a simple framework that will help to identify risk and ensure the success of your roadmap.

1. Discover choices

Consider the final goal carefully and write down all the possible choices to get there as rows in a table.

2. Determine criteria

Figure out what the key criteria are. This could be the business value that the given project provides, the costs of completing it, or the risk of failure. Make these factors columns.

For example, you could have business value, costs, and risks as your criteria.

Next, assign each of these criteria a weight, signifying how important those criteria are to your project. For example, I'm focused on business value, so I would weigh my options as below:

3. Scoring

On a scale from 1-5, rate each of the rows in each of the columns. You should ensure a 5 represents a preferable option for them all. For example, a lower-cost option would score 5.

4. Calculate

Multiply your scores by their weight. The highest total scoring rows win.

Now you understand how to use this matrix, you can plan and explain your prioritization decisions to stakeholders or decline feature requests.

To save time, try using the airfocus built-in scoring feature and prioritization wizard, which does all the calculations work for you.

What to add to your roadmap: Roadmap checklist

Although it depends on your industry, all roadmaps should contain:

  • End Goal - What do you want to achieve at the end of the roadmap? This is sometimes called a strategic objective, product vision, or just a goal.

  • Steps - These are the major steps required to achieve the end goal. Depending on your industry, this might be called epics, themes, projects, or work items. These should be prioritized, preferably using a scoring system.

  • Time - When will we complete each major step on the roadmap? Depending upon your situation, these could be specific dates or abstract milestones. For example, you might wish to share dates privately with colleagues but not publicly. This is common in public software roadmaps, as failure to reach deadlines would damage your team's credibility and disclose information to competitors.

  • Lanes - If your roadmap is being used by a larger team, you'll need to do several things simultaneously. These are typically represented as overlapping tasks in 'swim-lanes' on the roadmap and are used to divide responsibilities between teams, departments, and individuals. Lanes can also be represented as columns in a Kanban board or a Gantt chart.

  • Legend or Key - If you use colors, scoring, or tagging to help organize your roadmap, you'll need to explain what these mean concisely.

These elements come together to tell a clear and cohesive story, which tells stakeholders what we're doing, how we're doing it, and importantly why.

Roadmap templates

To help save you time, we've put together some roadmap templates for every industry. You can change these to suit your unique roadmapping requirements, editing the built-in prioritization feature to your unique criteria.

Product roadmap templates

This product roadmap template enables product teams to communicate their high-level strategy and goals. It also includes suggestions for a prioritization matrix, which you can easily modify to match your goals.

We've also put together a few specific templates you'll find helpful:

Technology roadmap template

If you've got an upcoming IT change management project to handle, a well-structured roadmap is essential. 

This template shows short-term and long-term concerns and helps you make objective decisions with a multi-dimensional prioritization matrix based on technical requirements and development costs.

Marketing and business templates

Marketers and business owners need not be envious of their product development colleagues - you can use roadmaps to communicate too.

  • For marketing teams, calculate the impact of your work with this marketing planning and prioritization template. Simply change the value criteria from brand awareness to whatever KPI you are tracking.

  • Business owner, strategists, consultants, or executive? Get everyone on the same page instantly with our business project roadmap template. Justify your decisions and spend with the built-in prioritization matrix

  • Startup? Build a billion-dollar empire by bringing order to chaos with this startup roadmap template. It'll tell you in seconds what you should be working on next.

The importance of using the right tool

So, now you know why roadmaps are important and how to create one. But are you using the right tools for the job?

As ex-product managers ourselves, we often see badly printed Excel documents stuck to the wall as roadmaps. Worse, we see product managers adapting tools with Trello and Jira, constricting their thinking process. These are technically roadmaps but lack key helpful features:

  • Updates: You need to be able to update your roadmap and share the updated version instantly.

  • Explore: Moving elements around or looking at the roadmap from a different view (as cards, a chart, or a timeline) helps you to think strategically and justify your decisions

  • Visually Compelling: A roadmap represents the future of your company, product, or project. It should be inspiring and encourage discussions.

  • Strategically Helpful: The best roadmapping tools include prioritization tools. The tool helps you think clearly and strategically, making a clearer roadmap.

For these 4 reasons, I'd encourage anyone creating a roadmap to use a dedicated roadmapping tool.

How to make a roadmap with Airfocus

Pick from one of the fully customizable templates available

  1. Edit to suit your organization. Be sure to tweak the prioritization criteria for your needs

  2. Build your roadmap following the instructions in this ultimate guide

  3. Pick the right view to shape your roadmap to convince your audience.

    1. Choose the item view for 1-2-1 decisions 

    2. Kanban for small/agile teams 

    3. A Gantt timeline for complex projects

    4. Or, a chart view to justify your strategic decisions

  4. Share your roadmap with key stakeholders and get buy-in - this is critical to your product’s success.

  5.  ….Start building amazing products!

  6. Oh, and don't forget to regularly revisit your roadmap to make sure that it evolves along with your product.

Get started

We hope you've found this ultimate guide to roadmaps helpful and are eager to get started with creating your next roadmap.

TLDR

If you scrolled right to the bottom of the article without reading, here’s the TLDR of roadmaps:

  • A roadmap is a strategic document that shows the major steps required to achieve a goal. 

  • Roadmaps can be used for all kinds of things, like marketing, software development, business, and IT projects.

  • You make a roadmap by making decisions based on the inputs available to you. These decisions become the steps required to achieve the goal.

  • You can make good decisions by using a prioritization matrix. This helps put the steps in order, removes unnecessary steps, or highlights things you might have missed.

  • Roadmaps are no backlogs. Do not include day-to-day steps.

  • It should be visually compelling and strategically sound, so you can use it to explain your strategic thinking. The quickest way is to use a dedicated roadmapping tool that allows you to morph your roadmap depending on your audience, showing a visual chart to key stakeholders and a kanban board to those doing the work.

Don’t waste time making your own roadmaps, just copy our homework. We’ve made dozens of interactive and beautiful roadmap templates for every industry and possible project. Just edit it to match your needs and claim you made it all by yourself. 

When you ship your project and win that promotion, let us know (@airfocusApp) so we can celebrate with you!

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